Dyea to Dawson International Race to Klondike 97-98

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Dyea to Dawson 1997 – Windy Arm Storm

Fred O’Brien

In  June of 1997 Karl Dittmar and I took part in the Dyea (near Skagway, Alaska) to Dawson, Yukon International Centennial Race to the Klondike. The race was limited to 50 teams of two, and was a re-enactment of the great gold-rush stampede of 1897-98.  We had a 56 Kl. hike over the Chilkoot trail and a 1000 Kl. canoe trip from Bennet Lake, through several lakes and down the mighty Yukon river to Dawson City.   We each  had to carry a minimum load of 22.5 Kilograms (50 lbs), which included listed compulsory items such as a gold pan, 12 inch diameter cast iron frying pan (heavy!), hatchet, shovel, flour, beans and dried fruit – all to make it a realistic commemoration of the stampede.

The canoeing was an unexpected adventure.  While sails were not allowed I had occasion to use a golfing umbrella on Bennet Lake; and more importantly, on Windy Arm (another large lake) during a storm of biblical proportions!  One team sank in the storm, had to be rescued and nearly were lost, suffering hypothermia.  Having lost most of their gear and not in a position to continue, they scratched from the race.  All the other competitors, except Karl and I, stayed ashore until the storm abated!  We were traveling close to shore, Karl in the rear and I up front.  With the wind picking up I opened the umbrella and we started to pick up good speed.  I was happy to display the umbrella to all those  stampeders on shore, gesturing to them, bravado style, that we would see them in Dawson!!  Being close to shore I felt that the breaking waves in the shallows were treacherous and I suggested to Karl that we move out a little farther into the lake.  To my surprise, Karl turned to cross the lake, using his paddle as a rudder.  The storm increased in ferocity.  The sky darkened and, with the increased wind speed and gusts, the umbrella was blown inside-out some seven times.  With the sudden pulls and thrusts things got very unsteady in the canoe and I started to fear for Karl and for the circumstances of my own family in the event of a looming disaster.  I managed to brace myself, with my two knees against the gunnels, and to hold the stem of the umbrella in my left hand and the sky-pointing rib in my right hand so as to continue catching the wind and remaining relatively steady.


The waves had increased up to some seven feet in height, according to Karl.  We were trying to reach the narrows to Tagish River and had to cut across the wind and were buffeted by gusts and waves on the right side of the canoe.  Every time we got a blast of wind and wave I called out (not too loud) “Jesus” in  prayer.  I recalled St. Therese of Lisieux’s reflection on the Bible story of Jesus asleep in the boat during the storm where she indicated that she would not wake him.  I resolved to take her advice and prayed for Karl, myself, our families; and put my trust in God.  The wind was so powerful that we were shooting across the lake and over the waves at great speed.  Without the umbrella, I am sure, we would have sunk in the storm!   Karl was using the paddle as a rudder and I was constricting the shape of the umbrella to hold it intact, bag shaped, and capturing the wind.  The sky was ominously dark, the far shore seemed to be receding and the journey seemed to take an eternity.  Now and again I thought:  how far could we swim if we went down?  how cold is the water?  The situation was so serious, I thought, that, come what may, even though my knees and arms were rigid and tired, I would not flag in my efforts and determination.  I believe I was not afraid for myself.   Karl had nerves of steel in the rear of the canoe and, with his steady hand, solid sense of humour in the face of challenge, and  aided by the prayers of our Maryhouse supporters in Whitehorse, we did not take a drop of water in the course of the crossing!! On arrival at the other side the storm was still at its height and we had to beach the canoe with the lashing waves and gusting windblasts hitting us from the right.  As we approached the shore I leapt from the canoe, was sideswiped by it in the shallow water and fell.  The canoe was swamped and Karl and I were totally immersed in the freezing water.  We struggled with the canoe and, managed to drag everything ashore.  We were famished and proceeded to transfer canoe, tent and gear out of the wind-swept open area and around the corner of the sheltered narrows.  We gathered firewood, found dry matches and tinder and lit a blazing fire.  We pitched tent, stripped out of our wet clothes and hung clothing and gear to dry on some beach-lain deadwood.  Our sleeping bags were dry on the inside and we bedded down for the night.   It was the most incredible adventure I had ever experienced.  Praise the Lord for delivering us safely from so great a storm!

Notes from John Firth’s Book

Pps 41-42 The Cardiac Kids – Fred & Karl

 As well, the Cardiac Kids hoof it out in 16th position. Both Fred O’Brien-living proof that you can remove the man from Ireland but not Ireland from the man-and his partner, Karl Dittmar, had by-pass heart surgery in the past two years. Karl is the solid, unflappable, outdoorsman who has provided most of the equipment and all of the experience. His surgery gave him a philosophical reason to be part of this race: “You’ve got to enjoy life as long as you have it.”

Fred is the indoorsman. He wears the type of clothes that most of the stampeders would have worn during the gold rush: dress shoes, cotton work pants, a cotton shirt, and a backpack my grandfather would have considered an antique. For him, the race is a spiritual quest and he sings in Gaelic a lament he has loved for over forty years: “What are we going to do without timber? The forests have come to an end. Our way of worshiping the creator is no longer practiced.” He stops singing and sits in silence for a moment. “I think that is very close to what has happened here and I want to see these forests. Get over that mountain and go down into those valleys and experience some of that wilderness myself. This is a personal journey.”

When it is suggested that they call themselves “The Tin Men,” Karl laughs: “We still have hearts-damaged, but they’re there.”

p.48 Sheep Camp (p. 47) p. 48. Fred O’Brien strips down and immerses himself in the freezing water. When we passed Fred earlier in the afternoon, he was standing at the side of the trail, peering beneath a log, then checking behind a rock. “I’ve lost my other sock,” he explained, waving one sweaty sock in the air. “I just stopped here to change them and it just disappeared.”

P 48/49 “The Long Hill” Dominic Question: Are we on course?  –  Rocks & boulders the size of a small car. See Photo p 63

P 61 Fred & Dom O’Brien

Andy Simpson, from Garforth, England, was hiking up The Long Hill. Since he didn’t know any of the racers around him, he stopped and looked around. Above him, huddled under a rock, were Fred and Dom O’Brien. They had started out about four hours before everyone else, but ran into fog. Disoriented, they crawled under a large boulder and slept as well as two lost, wet, and cold men could.

Dom, a long time fan of Robert Service’s poetry, had been talked into this event by his brother over a pint of beer in a pub in Dublin, Ireland. What appealed to him was the fact that the Chilkoot Pass was one and a half times taller than the highest peak on the Emerald Ilse and the distance they would canoe was twice the length of Ireland. Besides, what true Irishman could resist rubbing shoulders with a historical ghost or two. “It was good, “ he told me on the summit, describing his training in the small hills around Dublin, “but nothing compares to what I did today. This is a once in a lifetime trip, you know.”


P 67 Fred & Karl – tore tendon, unsettled stomach – Dr Russel Banford, the Good Samaritan assists FOB

Karl Dittmar and Fred O’Brien slow down to a virtual crawl. Fred tore a tendon in his knee and is hobbling along with a bandage wrapped around it. He is also suffering from a lack of energy and an unsettled stomach. “I was really sick but, you know, it was the food. It was too rich,” he determines. “You know, power bars and stuff like that. What I really needed was bacon and eggs and black pudding.”

Kevin McKauguenalso has a twisted knee, which is making it difficult to travel. He is passed by Dr. Russ Bamford who notices him limping. “I can take care of that for you,” says Russ. He finds a small pebble, presses it firmly against the side of the knee, and then wraps a tensor bandage around it. “There”, he says, “that should help”. Kevin stands up and the pain is gone. It is an astonishing introduction for the school teacher to the basic principles of accupressure. “I couldn’t believe it. It was amazing. I never had any more problems-all the way to Bennett.”

Russ also stops to assist Fred. The physician from Faro, Yukon, acquires a reputation for his trailside manner and a nickname: “The Good Samaritan of the Chilkoot Trail.” He desires to be competitive but surrenders positioning and strategy to the medical needs of other competitors.


P 87 Brendan Hennigan – after 20 hrs divides documentary program for CBC

Brendan and Anne appear to record the moment of departure. Brendan can barely function. He and Anne once again set aside the luxuries of sleep and food to continue filming. He asks me a question as I’m loading the canoe. I start to answer him, then realize he has already forgotten that he asked a question and wandered off to film something else. It probably wasn’t much of an answer anyway.

“It was important we got you leaving Bennett,” said Brendan later. “It would have caused great problems in our technical structure. It was a very natural ending to the first segment of the story. We had been walking and filming for about 20 hours. We were absolutely exhausted. But then, we get there[Bennett Lake] and we start filming. I’m trying to film this thing half-asleep. I remember it was a beautiful night. It was dark and the moon was out and there were some clouds moving across the sky.”


P 91 Fred & Karl – Cabbage – Hit out on Bennet Lake


Fred O’Brien and Karl Dittmar appear.While Fred laments the lack of cabbage in his diet, Karl is busy getting the canoe ready. Within fifteen minutes of arriving, they head out. As morning approaches, the weather changes. Teams leaving in the early daylight hours have a totally different experience from ours. Paul and Rosemary head out from Bennrtt, but the wind lashes up massive waves, pushing them up on the rocks and then ripping their spraydeck completely off the to of the canoe.”We decided to camp, dry stuff out, and wait until the wind dropped, says Paul.


P 106-107 “The Fred O’Brien Rule” Umbrella – Storm

Fred O’Brien decides he needs an umbrella as he and Karl Dittmar paddle past Bove Island. Other teams are waiting on the shore “during a storm of biblical proportions.” It isn’t raining, but Fred is curious. Just how good a sail will an umbrella make? “ With the wind picking up I opened the umbrella and we started to pick up speed. I was happy to display the umbrella to all those stampeders on shore, gesturing to them, bravado-style, that we would see them in Dawson.”

At first the umbrella keeps getting blown inside out. But Fred persists: he wedges himself into the bow and gets the umbrella stabilized. Karl digs his paddle into the water to use as a rudder – and they hang on for the ride of their lives. I tell you …we were shooting over those waves,” says Fred:

It was wild. Absolutely wild. We didn’t make the river at the end. We cut straight across the Arm at ninety degrees and had to beach on the east shore. My heart was in my mouth- both from joy and concern. Every time we got a blast of wind and wave I called out “Jesuss. Where are we going!?” –but not too loud. I recalled St. Therese of Lisieux’s reflection on the bible story of Jesus asleep in the boat during the storm where she indicated she would not wake him. I resolved to take her advice and prayed for Karl, myself, our families, and put my trust in God.

Karl keeps the canoe on course and it isn’t until they are almost to shore that their luck runs out. A wave sideswipes the canoe and totally immerses them in water. They pull the canoe into a sheltered bay where they set up a temporary camp to dry out. The waves, says the stoic German, were about six feet high, but adds, “they’ll probably grow as the years go by.”

Their trip across the Arm nets them a one-hour penalty from race officials for using a means of propulsion other than a paddle. It also resulted in the addition of a “Fred O’Brien Rule” for the 1998 Dyea-to-Dawson race.” It should be noted,” Fred proudly points out, “that the revised rules for the race include not only a prohibition of sails, but also umbrellas.”


P 149 Mosquito stories See also p. 220

[Mosquitos] multiply in such vast numbers that it was once proposed that the mosquito be designated as the Yukon’s official bird. In 1985, however, the government decided in favour of its larger cousin – the Raven. Allegedly, this choice was made because the Raven is a real bird, whereas the mosquito simply grew in local lore to be the size of one. [p. 220 There are] tales about poking rifles into dense clouds of mosquitoes to make a hole into which one could spit. Or swinging a knife through the air and slicing open so many bugs one had to clean the blood off the blade.


P 150 Fred & Karl on island brewing coffee

Fred O’Brien and Karl Dittmar sit on a small island in the middle of the river brewing up a pot of coffee over a small fire.



P 160 Fred & Karl on Lake Laberge – Cremation of Sam McGee

Fred O’Brien and Karl Dittmar paddle onto Lake Labarge and the moment Fred has been waiting for all his adult life finally arrives. With a gleam in his eye, and in his most precise Irish lilt, Fred can finally deliver his favourite poem in the one place where it makes the most sense:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic Trails have their secret tles

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen Queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee….


In the stern of the canoe, Karl listens ans paddles. “I like Robert Service, but I don’t know him like Fred, there. He knows them all by heart- Hey Fred! It must be nice to have nothing to do but read and memorize poetry!-I prefer Jack London myself because of the adventure.”

Brendan and Anne turn up to film Fred and Karl. I would say on Lebarge, when Fred was reciting “Sam McGee,” we’re in the middle of the lake, they’re coming towards us and its pure calm. You could sort of hear a slight echo. The moonlight. The late summer sunset, describes Brendan. I would say there, I just felt connected to the whole experience of being out on the lake and the history of the thing. I definitely had the feeling that to call yourself a Yukoner, you’ve got to come down the Yukon River.”


Lake Lebarge, the longest of the lakes on the Yukon, is named after a surveyor for the Western Union Telegraph Company, Michael Lebarge. Lebarge never saw the lake that bears his name, but had it described to him by the Indians in 1867 while working further north on the Yukon River.


P 179 Russ Banford on competition

While the jockeying for position goes on up front, there are, behind the lead pack, smaller, shorter races developing inside the main event. “It’s amazing. It’s really very competitive out there, says Russel Bamford, a medical graduate of the Royal College of Surgeond and a Dubliner. “You pull up beside a canoe and say ‘hello.’ They pick up their pace a little. You pick up your pace, and the next thing you know you’re racing down the river. Nobody expects to win the race, but nobody wants to be beaten by anyone else either.”

Some adopt the approach that age and treachery will beat youth and exuberance every time. When Cathy Tibbetts and Dan Morrison are ready to leave                                 Carmacks, they hide the paddles of friendly arch-rivals Mike Staeck nd Deana Darnell, then flee after leaving instructions with race staff to delay revealing the location of the gear.


P 192  Brendan Hennigan, whose family comes from Ireland, calls his sister re her son Andrew– “What dangerous parts?”

Brendan Hennigan made the strool into town, but not for food. He put through a call to his sister, Andrew Simpson’s mother, in Leeds, England. “Don’t worry,” he assures her. “I got Andrew past all the dangerous parts.” There was a moment of silence before she asked, “What dangerous parts?”

Andrew was attempting to put the race into context with distances people back in England could relate to. The entire race, he calculated, was the equivalent to paddling from Land’s End (at the south end of England) to John O’Groats (the north end of Scotland). Today they travelled from Manchester to Leeds, and tonight they would go to Birmingham. The journey was far beyond anything the auto mechanic and recreational soccer player had ever anticipated. “It’s tough, but it’s an incredible experience. To see Moose, Bears, Eagles. That’s not stuff that people back home will ever see. There was a large eagle that flew from tree to tree alongside the river while we were paddling. Then he just soared and swooped down low right over top of us.. God, it was exciting.”


P 198 Fred & Karl – Rink Rappids

Fred O’Brien and Karl Dittmar decide to negotiate Rink Rapids via the centre of the river and their canoe fills to the gunwales with water.”We managed to keep it upright, paddled to shore, lit a fire, hung everything to dry, and bedded down for some hours, says Fred.


  1. 243 Fred O’Brien doesn’t want race to end

Fred O’Brien doesn’t want the race to end. “Such a river … the Yukon River. Such people. Waking up by the river. Watching the subrise and the sunset. The long days. I didn’t even need sleep after a while. I could do this forever.



  1. 245 Dominic “Not your normal holiday!”

“Every day was a challenge,” said Dom O’Brien as he sipped on his Guinness – a finish-line reward he had dreamed of since the race began. “There was something new every day. It wasn’t your normal holiday where you could relax every day.”



River Time: Racing the Ghosts of the Klondike by John Firth    ISBN 1-896300-66-9



Pps 41-42 The Cardiac Kids – Fred & Karl

P 49 “The Long Hill” Dominic: Are we on course?  – See Photo p 63

P 61 Fred & Dom O’Brien

P 67 Fred & Karl – tore tendon, unsettled stomach – Dr Russel Banford, the Good Samaritan assists FOB

P 87 Brendan Hennigan – after 20 hrs divides documentary program for CBC

P 91 Fred & Karl – Cabbage – Hit out on Bennet Lake

P 106-107 “The Fred O’Brien Rule” Umbrella – Storm

P 149 Mosquito stories See p. 220

P 150 Fred & Karl on island brewing coffee

P 160 Fred & Karl on Lake Laberge – Cremation of Sam McGee

P 160-162 Brendan Hennigan Yukon River

P 179 Russ Banford on competition

P 192  Brendan Hennigan calls his sister re her son Andrew– “What dangerous parts?”

P 198 Fred & Karl – Rink Rappids

P 220 Mosquitoes – last paragraph

  1. 243 Fred O’Brien doesn’t want race to end
  2. 245 Dominic “Not your normal holiday!”
  3. 262 Maintaining substance and experience vicariously through the living – FOB one of 15 listed!


Notes from Yvonne Harris Article – 1998 Race

But it was the Irish who charmed the Dyea competitors. Fred O’Brien joined up with his brother, Dominic, who journeyed from Ireland to “enjoy a holiday” in Canada’s North. When Dominic finished, he’d completed an ascent higher than any mountain in Ireland and travel by river the length of Scotland and England combined. The gentle brothers are gifted musicians. In fact, Fred received the Most Melodious Dyea Racer Award for his rendition of Irish melodies Most of Fred’s suffering was self-inflicted and I worried that his masochistic tendencies would be visited upon his sweet-natured and trusting brother. Fred refused to recognize that an arduous event like the Dyea to Dawson race requires the purchase of special footwear and clothing. Instead of warm polyester shirts, water-shedding pants, and strong waterproof boots, he tackled the Chilkoot in lightweight cords, his office shirt and running shoes. I assumed his poor threads and long-suffering strategy would sink his chances on the river. Again I was quite wrong.

Though they arrived in Carcross wet, exhausted and cold after the 10 – hour crossing from Bennett, the pair slapped down $28 and checked into the historic Caribou Hotel, dried their clothes, ate in the restaurant and caught eight hours sleep. Then, the Irishmen joined up with an English team comprised of our local CBC TV cameraman Brendan Hennigan and Andrew, his young nephew from England. While hostilities broke out again in Ireland with the burning of the Catholic churches, a bond developed between the Irish and the English Dyea teams and peace reigned on the Yukon River. And the Irish team’s food of choice? You guessed right – a huge pail of baked potatoes.

From: Pain and Passion from Dyea to Dawson By Yvonne Harris, The Yukon News, Monday, July 20, 1998, Sport & Recreation, pages 36-37